Psychological Factors That Accompany A Successful Athletic Performance Psychology Essay

Within applied sport psychology it has become of extreme importance to understand the psychological factors that accompany a successful athletic performance. In order to understand what psychological processes might be contributing to quality of performance, it is important to look at the specific psychological constructs with theoretical relevance to optimal performance (Jackson, Thomas, Marsh, Smethurst; 2001). Majority of studies done in sport have been conducted from a social cognitive perspective, which places an emphasis on an individual’s thought processes to explain the reasons for their behavior (Harwood, Cumming, Fletcher; 2001). In themselves, psychological skills are distinct yet interrelated components separated for research and training purposes (Edwards, Steyn; 2008).

Although it has been accepted that there is a link between mindfulness, psychological skills and performance anxiety, little research has been done in determining the link between these three. It is of extreme importance for athletes to have the skills needed for regulating arousal, processing information, and managing emotion. These skills are targeted in training programs and can make the difference between a successful or unsuccessful athlete (Jackson, Thomas, Marsh, Smethurst; 2001). The skills that are trained in psychological skills training include: physiological arousal, cognitive arousal, mental imagery, attention, concentration etc (Edwards, Steyn; 2008).

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Literature review
Psychological skills:

This term is often used interchangeably with the term mental skills but is a much broader concept. A large amount of research has been performed on psychological skills such as physiological arousal, cognitive arousal, mental imagery, attention, concentration, self confidence, goal setting and motivation (Edwards, Steyn; 2008). It is interesting to note that it was found that the psychological skills usage in elite Olympic equestrian athletes was higher than that found in sports such as women’s tennis, competitive rock climbers, Olympic weight lifting and, with the exception of vigor and mood states, elite runners, triathletes and football (Meyers, Bourgeois, LeUnes, Murray; 1999).

According to Lesyk(1998), there are nine mental skills that all successful athletes have. These nine skills are specific and contribute to success in sports. They can all be learnt and can improve with training and practice. The nine mental skills are:

Choose and maintain a positive attitude

Maintain a high level of self-motivation

Set high, realistic goals

Deal effectively with people

Use positive self-talk

Use positive mental imagery

Manage anxiety effectively

Manage their emotions effectively

Maintain concentration

Different psychological skills:

In the Athletic Coping skills Inventory-28 (ACSI-28) there are seven different psychological areas that are assessed, these areas are: coping with adversity, coachability, concentration, confidence and motivation, goal setting and mental preparation, peaking under pressure, and freedom from worry.

Coping with adversity:

Coping is an important skill for an athlete as they need to be able to deal with the stresses of their environment in order to be successfully (Nicholls, Polman, Levy, Taylor, Cobley; 2007). Coping is difficult to define and different concepts make this task even more difficult, although recently there is a growing consensus that coping can be characterised as cognitive, affective, and behavioural to manage specific external and/or internal demands (Crocker, Kowalski, Graham; 1998). Lazarus and Folkman defined coping as ‘constantly changing cognitive and behavioural efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person’ (Nicholls, Polman, Levy, Taylor, Cobley; 2007). Coping effectiveness has been defined by Nicholls and Polman as ‘the degree in which a coping strategy or combination of strategies is or are successful in alleviating the negative emotions caused by stress’. Various different stressors that affect athletic performance have been suggested which include lacking confidence, injury etc. Researchers mainly disagree on the amount of stressors that affect the athlete, some argue it is limitless while others say that a small number recur over time (Nicholls, Polman, Levy, Taylor, Cobley; 2007). Coping responses have been split into three different functions: problem focused coping describes strategies directed at managing self or the environment; Emotion focused coping involves managing emotional responses to stress; and avoidance coping involves behavioural and psychological efforts to disengage from a stressful situation (Nicholls, Polman, Levy, Taylor, Cobley; 2007).


Coachability can basically be viewed as how receptive are athletes to their coaches and how willing are they to make the changes and sacrifices necessary to become a top athlete. In a study by Giacobbi et al (2002), coaches described athletes as ‘coachable if they were: receptive to instruction, willing to make changes, organized, more educable, and open. Coaches is this study also stated that coachability is part of the coach/athlete relationship and that if the player didn’t respect the coach, then the athlete would be less likely to do what the coach was asking them to do. The ACSI-28 gives coachability four items which assess the athlete’s reaction to feedback, advice, and criticism from coaches. However, Giacobbi et al (2002) found that coachability is much more complex and appears to be comprised of other aspects of an athlete’s personality and external influences. According to their observations coachability is a reciprocal, interactional construct that is influenced by the coach’s personality.


Concentration is the athlete’s ability to focus on the task at hand and not be distracted by irrelevant stimuli. Stimuli that affect the athlete’s concentration can be both internal and external. A successful athlete is one that is able to focus on the task at hand and avoid distractions. An athlete’s perceptions can either enhance or destroy their performance. According to Posner and Boies attention has three main facets which are alertness, selectivity, and capacity. The initial requirement for a state of attention is an alertness or readiness to respond to relevant stimuli. Secondly the athlete must selectively focus on some cues and ignore those that are irrelevant. Thirdly an athlete has a limited capacity and thud can only process so much information (Potgieter; 2006). Attention can be seen as an interaction between cognition, perception, and action. Over the years training programs have been developed to enhance the concentration of athletes as this plays such a big role in the outcome of an athletic performance. Some researchers believe that athletes that are anxious are more likely to become distracted and focus on irrelevant cues, this will cause the athlete to make mistakes, and this will cause the athlete to become more anxious. This has been labeled as the anxiety-mistake spiral.

Confidence and motivation:

Studies have shown that a desire to win can at times direct behavior, but it can also have negative consequences that include low self-confidence, high anxiety, and poor athletic performances. Athletes who are more concerned with their performance appear more self-confident, less anxious and perform closer to their athletic potential (Martin, Gill; 1991). Athletes who set goals that focus more on the outcomes tend to strive toward unrealistic goals and thus would eventually become less motivated to perform at their best. On the other hand, athletes who have performance oriented goals enhance their confidence and performance levels as their goals are more realistic. If an athlete has a low level of confidence when they perform then they are more likely to be affected by cognitive anxiety and thus it could be said that confidence and anxiety are indirectly related.

An individual’s attitude being confidence can also affect the athlete’s self-confidence. This attitude has been referred to as the trait sport-confidence (Martin, Gill; 1991). As anxiety is inversely related to self-confidence, it can also be assumed that trait sport-confidence and anxiety are also inversely related. Three social events have been suggested that influence and athlete’s motivation, these social events are: success/failure; competition and cooperation; and the coach’s behaviour. These three events influence the athlete’s motivation through the feelings they cause the athlete to experience and the fact that the manner in which the athlete experiences them determines whether an athlete is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. The experiences an athlete has in these events may even determine whether or not an athlete will continue participating in their respective sport.

Goal Setting and Mental Preparation:

Goal setting is commonly used by coaches as a strategy to motivate task performance and improve the performance of the athlete (Elliot, Harackiewiecz; 1994). An important concept within goal setting is to know what the athlete’s perception of success and failure is as this has implications for the athlete’s confidence, interest, effort and persistence (Harwood; 2005). Athletes formulate their sense of achievement in two ways, either in a task involved manner or in an ego involved manner. A task-involved athlete is concerned with developing their competency by using levels of effort and task completion to assess their development. Ego-involved athletes see their ability as stable and therefore limit the effect that high levels of effort have on their performance (Harwood; 2005).

Goals are considered extremely important among theories of motivation that place an emphasis on self-regulation. These theories include task goal theory, social-cognitive theory, resource allocation theory, and control theory (Klein, Wesson, Hollenbeck, Alge; 1999). A large portion of research done on goal setting has been done within task goal theory. The basic finding is that under certain conditions, goals that are specific and difficult lead to a higher level of performance than goals that are vague and/or easy (Klein, Wesson, Hollenbeck, Alge; 1999). A common assumption is that there is commitment to the specific, difficult goal, which means the athlete is determined to achieve the goal.

Peaking under Pressure:

Competition can either bring out the best in us or the worst, it can trigger the need to excel and help the athlete realize their own potential (Botterill; 2005). By taking a closer look at how competition affects performance, several factors that explain poor results can be revealed. Firstly, is the inability to focus fully on the task at hand, although the desire for a competitive outcome may initially help the athlete but if the athlete begins to define themselves by these outcomes difficulties with focus may occur. This ability to not let the pressures of competition interfere with one’s focus is a learned skill and important as it plays a role in an athlete’s success.

Freedom from Worry:

This skill is interrelated with the skill of confidence as athletes that have a lower level of confidence is more likely to worry than an athlete that is extremely confident. Worrying could also be seen as a form of anxiety and thus athletes that worry are more likely to suffer from competitive anxiety. Self-esteem also plays an important role as athletes that suffer from a low self-esteem are more concerned with what others think of them and thus worry constantly about their level of improvement and how they look when competing. One way to teach an athlete this skill is to build both their self-esteem and self-confidence as athletes are less likely to worry if they believe they can do well.

In our research we are looking at the psychological skills of both track athletes and rugby players in order to see if there is a difference in the psychological skills of the two sporting codes.

Relationship between psychological skills and performance anxiety:

Studies that examine the competitive anxiety as a function of skill have shown that although elite and non-elite athletes generally do not differ in terms of the intensity levels of responses, elite athletes report greater levels of self-confidence than compared to non-elite athletes (Neil, Mellalieu, Hanton; 2006). Athletes who see themselves as being in control and able to cope with anxiety and achieve their goals do not view competitive anxiety as negative. One the other hand, athletes who are not in control and do not achieve their goals view competitive anxiety as a negative factor (Neil, Mellalieu, Hanton; 2006). The level of self-confidence is reported to influence how an athlete interprets anxiety, and may play a role in the prevention of anxiety having debilitating effects on the athlete. Self-confidence has thus been suggested as being a resiliency factor and can stop the debilitating effects of anxiety. St4ategies that alter the the negative thoughts are said to alter the athletes overall mental experience into a more positive and confident outlook on the athlete’s upcoming performance. It is theorised that elite athletes use more psychological skills in order to enhance their self-confidence and thus stop the debilitating effects that anxiety causes (Neil, Mellalieu, Hanton; 2006).


Mindfulness is a concept that originated from the Buddhist religion or culture and it was based on the Noble Eightfold Path which explains the path leading to an end in suffering and spiritual enlightenment (Collard et al, 2008). Mindfulness is central to Buddhist teachings on the important of consciousness (Hayes in Walach et al, 2006). In Eastern culture this meditational practice was used to enhance awareness of the current experience. Western culture later adopted the skills from the eastern culture (excluding the religious and cultural tradition) into mental health treatment programs for mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, Linehan in Bernier et al, 2009).

According to Brown and Ryan (2003) mindfulness “is most commonly defined as the state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present.” Bernier et al (2009) describes mindfulness similarly, stating that mindfulness is “a mental state resulting from voluntarily focusing one’s attention on one’s present experience in its sensorial, mental, cognitive and emotional aspects, in a non-judgmental way.” (Cottraux in Bernier et al 2009)

This study is designed to identify the relationship between mindfulness and prevention of injuries in contact and non-contact sports by looking into how mindfulness can help individuals prevent injuries. Similar to the study of Belna (2008) the aim of this study is to focus specifically in the differences in mindfulness in contact sports (rugby) and non-contact sports (track athletics), and identify whether differences in mindfulness arise from being in a individual or team sport.

According to Brown and Ryan (2003) awareness and attention are concepts that cannot be separated when looking at mindfulness, as mindfulness can be seen as enhancing attention and awareness to the present moment. Belna (2008) defined mindfulness as the enhancement of awareness and attentiveness to the present moment. Belna (2008) further states that “mindfulness training could have a positive impact on athletic performance, injury prevention, and recovery times in athletes.” It is these particular aspects that this research aims to capitalize on in the Tuks individual and team sports, specifically the rugby and athletics. Mindfulness can therefore be seen as an individual’s state of mind where there is consciousness or awareness (Brown and Ryan, 2003).

When looking into mindfulness approaches a most frequently used approach in enhancing mindfulness skills in athletes the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) (De Petrillo et al, 2009). With regards this approach the focus is based on research conducted by Grossman et al, 2003. Another approach that is important when looking into mindfulness is the Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) to enhance performance. With regards this approach research by Gardner and Moore will be looked into.

Grossman et al (2004) describes MBSR as “a structured group program that employs mindfulness meditation to alleviate suffering associated with physical, psychometric and psychiatric disorders.” MBSR is an intervention that is designed in order to make an individual acquire awareness of their present experiences (Grossman et al, 2004). The MBSR program is a systematic procedure that aims at enhancing awareness of successive moment experiences of perceptible mental processes (Grossman et al, 2004). It is through this intervention that an individual can have a life that is more “fulfilling” and “rich” (Belna, 2008). The MBSR approach has been seen as beneficial in diverse participants regarding various psychological states. Included in these states are: distress, worry, rumination, anxiety, depressive symptoms, sleep quality, pain, and general quality of life (Nyklicek and Kuijpers, 2008)

Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) is an approach that is created to enhance performance, which is specifically adapted for athletes (Gardner and Moore, 2004). This paradigm shift was meant to build on and enhance the traditional performance enhancement approach to a more modern and relevant approach. The Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment-based approach to performance enhancement is based on two therapies, these being Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy which are integrated for specific use by athletes. MAC draws its approach based on extensive research in rue-governed behavior. Rule governed behavior as explained by Gardner and Moore (2004) consists of an individual having negative emotional response to external factors and directly thinks of those factors, and according to their thoughts they will have a negative emotional response. By this it can be seen that the individuals react to their thoughts as if they were happening in reality. According to Gardner and Moore (2004) the MAC approach should focus on enhancing two areas, these being competitive self regulation and valued goal commitment. These areas will in turn enhance athlete performance, quality practice, intense training, and long-term development of athletic skill. The MAC approach focuses on positive behavioural response that will assist the athlete to navigate through immediate situations yet also keeping in mind distal goals (which involve commitment). Gardner and Moore conducted a case study research which was focused on mindfulness and this research demonstrated the MAC approach and its potential to assist athletic enhancement and injury prevention through teaching mindfulness dimension.

It is known that not all individuals can have the same levels of attention and awareness, and that there are variations in mindfulness within individuals. Therefore it is important to be able to measure the levels of mindfulness. In the research conducted by De Petrillo et al (2009) it is seen how she identifies that the levels of mindfulness and mental training needed in long distance runners is particularly important as strategies are needed to deal with issues such as: fatigue, boredom, pain, performance anxiety, and negative thoughts. De Petrillo states that “psychological skills can be used to learn ways to better deal with these hindrances so that athletes can excel in their sports”, enhanced levels of mindfulness in these athletes will eliminate bad habits such as poor running form which in turn will prevent injuries.

Brown and Ryan (2003) described the development, reliability and validity of a modern measurement instrument known as the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS). This scale measures levels of attention and awareness in individuals, variations in mindfulness, and especially the frequency of mindfulness in individuals over a period of time. Shapiro et al in Belna (2008) proposed that there are three axioms involved in mindfulness (these being: intention, attention, and attitude) which lead to perspective. Perspective is than further divided into four concepts which are: self regulation, values, clarification, emotional and behavioural flexibility, and exposure. Belna (2008) argues that mindfulness levels need to be identified within the individuals or participants before developing interventions to increase athletic performance and prevention of injuries. Therefore in the research that we are conducting we aim in identifying levels of mindfulness in rugby players and track athletes to see if there is a difference in mindfulness amongst the two sport codes.

Relationship between psychological skills and mindfulness:
Performance Anxiety:

Of all the psychological factors thought to influence sport performance, anxiety is often considered the most important. Sport psychologists have produced scores of articles, manuals, and tapes to help athletes deal with anxiety and help to prevent injury due to anxiety. Yet considerable disagreement remains about the most useful theory of anxiety and sport performance, as well as the most appropriate instruments for measuring anxiety in athletes (Ostrow, 1996). There is also growing acknowledgement that traditional theories of anxiety and performance have fared poorly in the case of sport. Moreover the importance of individual differences in athletes’ responses to anxiety is now recognized, and several theories of sport performance have developed to account for this heterogeneity (Fazey & Hardy, 1998)

Spielberger (1972) defined anxiety as an emotional reaction to a stimulus perceived as dangerous. This stimulus, or “stresses”, results in dysphoric thoughts and feelings, unpleasant sensations, and physical changes. Means of assessing anxiety include observation of overt behavior, physiological indicators (e.g, heart rate, galvanic skin activity, stress hormones), and self report (Hackfort & Schwenkmezger).

The anxiety performance relationship is a prominent research issue and a practical concern for sport participants. The relationship between anxiety and athletic performance has received considerable attention from researchers in the field of sport psychology. Research on the sport anxiety/performance relationship was initially based on the inverted-u hypothesis (Yerkes & Dodson 1908); this hypothesis posited a curvilinear relationship between physiological arousal and performance (Gould & Kran, 1992; Jones; 1995; Krane; 1992; Yerkes and Dodson, 1908).

Moderate levels of arousal were generally associated with better performance, whereas arousal levels that were too high or too low led to poorer performance (Gould & Krane, 1992; Spielberger, 1989). The Multidimensional theory suggest that anxiety consisted of both cognitive and somatic subcomponents, based on this theory; cognitive anxiety is defined as “the mental component of anxiety is caused by negative expectations about success or by negative self-evaluation” (Martens Somatic Anxiety, as defined by Martens “Refers to the Physiological and affective elements of the Anxiety experience that develop directly from autonomic arousal.

Anxiety influence on performance continues to be one of the main research interests for sport psychologist (Hanin, 2000).

The Injured Athlete

Injury is an emotional provocative experience for the athlete. It is also, unfortunately, common, especially in the highly competitive. The ability to remain injury free and recover quickly after injury is an essential athletic skill, linked to competitive success. Managing the emotions associated with injury, and dealing successfully with stress that might otherwise contribute to injury, is equally important to successful rehabilitation and injury prevention (Anderson & Williams, 1998). Sport psychology has emerged as a discipline designed to enhance performance through mental skills training. The perspective on emotion and injury presented here is a blending of applied practice, theory, and research in sport psychology and behavioral medicine. (Smith & Smoll, 1990)

Psychological skills within injury:

With the physical and psychological demands that elite athletes experience, it is not surprising that the occurrence of injuries is almost inevitable. Sport has a ‘culture of risk’ in which athletes accept the physical risks of participation as ‘part of the game’, and this leads to playing with pain and injuries and assuming that pain tolerance is a desirable character trait. Although there are a variety of physical factors that may lead to injuries, it is also believed that psychosocial factors also play a role in the occurrence of injuries. Although this is believed majority of studies on the relationship with psychological skills and injuries have occurred in the rehabilitation phase and not as a form of preventing injuries. This could partly be the greater interest in returning athletes to training as soon as possible after an injury has occurred ( Hamson-Utley, Martin, Walters;2008). Although little research has been done on the effects of psychological skills on the occurrence of injuries a number of stressors have been identified as possible reasons for injury. These stressors include: Life events, daily hassles, previous injury, and coping resources (Potgieter; 2008). By examining these stressors one notices that psychological skills would play a role in reducing the effect these stressors have on an athlete and thus essentially on the occurrence of injury.

Research problem

The rational for this paper is as follows. Firstly there is a need to find a link between psychological skills and mindfulness as both concepts play an important role in an athlete’s success. Secondly, a link between psychological skills and performance anxiety also needs to be found. Thirdly, the researchers would like to see if there is a link between all three concepts. Fourth, the researchers also want to see how psychological skills, mindfulness, and performance anxiety affect the occurance of injuries in athletes in both contact and non-contact sport.


The first aim of this research is to find the relationship between psychological skills and mindfulness. The second is to find a relationship between psychological skills and performance anxiety. The third is to find a relationship between psychological skills, mindfulness, and performance anxiety. The fourth aim is to find the link between psychological skills, mindfulness and performance anxiety in relation to injuries that occur in sport.


It is expected that psychological skills, mindfulness, and performance anxiety will have a relationship with each other. They will also influence the occurrence of injuries in athletes, performance anxiety and psychological skills will have an indirect relationship in terms of the occurrence of injuries.


The sample shall consist of 100 athletes, 50 track and field athletes and 50 rugby players, who are between the ages of 18-25 years.

Research design
Measuring instruments

Quantitative outcome measures:

The Athletic Coping Skill Inventory (ACSI-28) Survey


Injury Survey

Data analysis techniques

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